Paul Charged by the Jews: Part 2 of 3

by John Lowe
(Woodruff, S.C.)

15 But if it be a question of words and names, and of your law, look ye to it; for I will be no judge of such matters.

Gallio seems to have used a technical term for taking up a case (anechomai) when he refused to judge (“listen to,” NIV) the Jews complaint against Paul. It was within his right as a proconsul to make such a refusal. In instances where it was not a clear-cut case of infraction of an established Roman law, it was left to the discretion of the judge whether or not to formally hear the case. In this instance, Gallio did not see the charges as deserving his time. He didn’t even give Paul a chance to make a defense (18:14).

Gallio did not recognize it, but that was precisely what the disagreement was all about; it was about “words”—But if it be a question of words. The Greek is logos, word. The “Word” had been “made flesh.” That was the great message of the new faith. The inspired Word of old had become the incarnate Word in Christ. And it was about “names,” as Paul makes it clear in Hebrews, names such as Moses and Joshua, Aaron and Melchizedek, the names in that illustrious roll call of the faith in Hebrews 11. But set the name of Jesus alongside those names, and all these bright lights in the Hebrew firmament fade as the stars before the rising sun. And it was all about “your law.”They could not keep it, but Jesus did—every jot and tittle of the moral law He kept in His immaculate life; and He fulfilled the types and shadows of the ritual law in His immeasurable death. So much so, indeed, that henceforth the law, as a system, was forever obsolete. After all, it had been but a schoolmaster to bring the Jews to Christ.

That indeed was what it was all about. Gallioas a magistrate had no business adjudicating in such matters because they were outside his province and beyond his expertise. Gallio, as a man, lost his soul by not being interested in those things.

The Jews must have been greatly disturbed by this verdict. When it came to “words and names” and their law, they were no match for Paul. Now they had taken their case to court, only to have it abruptly thrown back out again. Worse yet, they had attracted the unfriendly eye of Roman officialdom to themselves.

16 And he drave them from the judgment seat.

The Jews could settle the matter themselves. It was probably the case that the Jews, stunned at first by Gallio’s cavalier treatment, quickly recovered their resolve and persisted in their charges. Impatiently Gallio summoned the lictors and ordered them to clear the court. Thus the Jews were driven out and into the street by the blows of the officers who doubtless were glad for an opportunity to express an emerging anti-Semitism with some measure of official sanction. Thus were all of them driven from the court. One should not see Gallio as taking Paul’s side, however. Paul would have been ejected along with the Jews. Gallio saw the entire matter as an internal Jewish affair and would have nothing to do with it.

17 Then all the Greeks took Sosthenes, the chief ruler of the synagogue, and beat him before the judgment seat. And Gallio cared for none of those things.

The delighted crowd enthusiastically seconded the work of the lictors. Here was a golden opportunity to vent some of their bottled-up dislike of Jews in general. The incident must have taken place in the open6, as indicated by the mob scene that occurred in the presence of the proconsul. This has been verified by the excavations at Corinth. A raised platform of blue marble has been uncovered on the south side of the agora that served as the bema (18:12), or judgment seat of the Roman officials.

Sosthenes had apparently succeeded Crispus as the ruler of the synagogue and was one of the Jews who had preferred charges against Paul. But the Jewish conspiracy which he led, boomeranged. The mob seized him, hauled him back into court, dragged him before the judgment seat, and proceeded to beat him up in the very presence of Gallio. Gallioimpassively saw what was happening, judged rightly the mood of the mob, decided it was no concern of his, turned a blind eye on these illegal proceedings, which should indeed have concerned him, and left them to it. This was not so much callousness on his part as it was his firm refusal to have anything to do with the matter. It was entirely an internal Jewish affair. The incident set an important precedent. Proconsular decisions over such unusual cases were often followed by Roman officials in other provinces. Had Gallio decided against Paul, it would have been a dangerous precedent that not only would have ended his effectiveness in Achaia but hindered his witness elsewhere. But you would think that some viewed his inaction on the Jewish charge as giving tacit confirmation to the legality of the Christian religion.

The unruly beating of Sosthenes is anything but clear. Who are the “all” who beat him in front of the proconsul—probably the Greeks (Gentile unbelievers) who had come from elsewhere in the Agora to see the goings-on before the bema? Encouraged by Gallio’s attitude, they were quick to show their own contempt for the Jews by punishing Sosthenes for bringing Paul before Gallio on such an empty charge. Or the entire crowd may be meant; both Jews and Gentiles. Or it may have been the Jews themselves who beat him up, as the context would suggest. Since they had failed to make their charges stick, they vented their rage on their own leader, who had presented their case. Or if this was the Sosthenes of 1 Corinthians 1:17 (the coincidence is certainly striking), though still the leader of the synagogue, he may have shown some leanings toward the Christians, like his predecessor Crispus, and on that account suffered the rage of the Jews.

Establishing the identity of Sosthenes is complicated by the fact that Paul mentioned a Sosthenesin 1 Corinthians 1:1 as a close Christian companion who joined him in writing to the Corinthians. Sosthenes is not an uncommon name, and the two may be different persons. But if they are the same, then clearly the ruler of the synagogue subsequently became a Christian, just like his predecessor Crispus. In this instance, the Jews may have beat Sosthenes, who may already have been indicating his Christian sympathies. On the other hand, the Gentiles may have been the culprits. Gallio’s ejection of the Jews may have unleashed their latent and anti-Semitic tendencies. This would have rendered a sort of “poetic justice.” The one who as synagogue ruler probably was the chief speaker against Paul now received himself the punishment he had wished on the apostle. Such an interpretation does not rule out the possibility that this is the same Sosthenes mentioned 1 Corinthians 1:1, in which case his conversion would be subsequent to this event. It would be interesting to know exactly how he was converted. Did Paul and some of the believers visit Sosthenes and minister to him? Perhaps his predecessor Crispus helped “wash his wounds” (Acts 16:33) and used this as an opportunity to share the love of Christ.

Regardless of all that happened on this occasion, something positive may have come out of it for Paul. He may have realized for the first time the full potential of the Roman state for protection. And if it offered that protection here, why not in Rome itself? Thus may the Spirit have sown the seeds of an idea that gradually became Paul’s great objective.

How strange and wonderful are the providences of God! The Jews tried to force the Roman proconsul to declare the Christian faith illegal, but Gallio ended up doing just the opposite. By refusing to try the case, Gallio made it clear that Rome would not get involved in cases involving Jewish religious disputes. As far as he was concerned, Paul and his disciples had as much right as the Jews to practice their religion and share it with others. Unfortunately, his decision could not enjoy undisputed validity for long, but as a precedent, it did afford protection to Christianity for ten vital years.

In the Book of Acts, Luke emphasizes the relationship between the Roman government and the Christian church. While it was true that the Jewish Council prohibited the Apostles to preach (Acts 4:17-21; 5:40), there is no evidence in Acts that Rome ever did so. In fact, in Philippi (Acts 16:35-40), Corinth, and Ephesus (Acts 19:31), the Roman officials were not only tolerant but almost cooperative. Paul knew how to use his Roman citizenship wisely so that the government worked for him and not against him, and he was careful not to accuse the government or try to escape its authority (Acts 25:10-128).

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